Month: January 2014
Tonight my friend and I were teaching a class at church on God’s story and how it has been told in history through art. I ended the class by iterating the need to continue telling the story. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses is preparing the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. He warns them that when you get there, there is going to be a lot of things around you that are going to distract you and pull you away. There is going to be a lot of things in the culture around you that may make you forget the story of how God saved you. Don’t forget the exodus. Don’t forget the great wonders that God has done. In other words, don’t forget the story. So how are they going to do that? They have to keep telling the story. Then when we look at the book of Judges, we see what happens when the people forget the story.
So, that was my class tonight. Now, I’ve put my 2-year-old George to bed and my wife is putting our 6-month-old Henry to bed. I just sat down on the couch and pulled my computer out and I can hear George singing at the top of his lungs in the other room, “My hope is built, on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness…” He is singing as loud as he can while lying in bed. It really melts my heart. Why do I find that significant? He’s learning and rehearsing the story. He’s hearing it from us in song and he is repeating that over and over, learning the story. Why? Our hope is that as he moves along in this world, he won’t forget God and what he has done. He won’t forget the exodus.
I said (very poorly I might add!) in my class tonight that I don’t like the message of the song “Jesus Loves Me”. Now before you get mad at me, hear me out. I know Jesus loves me and I want our kids to know it. I will keep singing that song with my kids. My problem is the reason why I know Jesus loves me according to that song. Yes, the bible does tell me so. I know on an intellectual level that Jesus loves me because the bible tells me so. However, I really know and understand that Jesus loves me because I see it lived out all around me. I learned it from a mom and dad who were always there and tried their hardest to display that love. I learned and am learning it from the selfless love of my wife. I see it everyday in my faith community from people who love those who are marginalized in our society. I know that Jesus loves me because I live and see the story lived everyday, and that takes it to a whole new level for me.
The purpose of our class on Wednesday nights and the purpose of this post is to make the point that the way to shape the people of God is to keep telling the story. We rehearse it each Sunday when we gather. We rehearse it each day when we love the people around us. We tell it through stories, art, song, and many other forms. However it is told, we must keep telling the story. We have to tell our children the story of what God has done, what he is doing, and what he is going to do. We have to tell the story about how our God brought us out of the land of slavery and sin and delivered us. If we want to see a people shaped and transformed and truly know that Jesus loves them, whether that is the people around us or the next generation, we have to tell them the story of Jesus.
At 52 years of age, I am still in school. I am writing a dissertation right now for a PhD in congregational mission and leadership from Luther Seminary. There has seldom been a time in my adult life when I haven’t been taking classes. I finished an MA right out of my undergrad experience, but then slowly accumulated hours and degrees over the years. This has, in many ways, turned out to be a really rich way to get an education. The principle reason, I think, is that I was taking classes while I was in a ministry context.
When I read Luke Timothy Johnson’s, Decision Making in the Church (now Scripture and Discernment), I was able to apply it immediately to situations I was encountering in my ministry role. When I encountered the raft of important essays in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, my first foot into “missional” readings, their importance was immediately apparent because of the challenges I faced doing ministry in the missional context of the Pacific Northwest.
I think what I was experiencing was a learning environment that in many ways overcame the theory-praxis split built in to much ministry training. Let me explain. By this I simply mean that in recent ministry education (the last 200 years) information came before application. In fact, if you thought first about what to do (praxis) it would corrupt your pursuit for the right information which existed above and prior to practice. So, when I went to grad school, my first few years were loaded with “advanced intro” classes. I took Advanced Intro NT, Advanced Intro OT, Systematic 1, Church History 1, Biblical Greek and Hebrew, etc. Ministry classes (praxis) came only after these “theory” classes were completed. At the seminary where I taught for eight years, Intro to Ministry was not taken in the regular sequence of classes until the final year of the MDiv. Theory came first and dominated the curriculum. Praxis last.
Now, I loved my “theory” classes. I am so thankful for the chance to sit at the feet of great biblical scholars and watch them get after texts. I want to be clear: my imagination for ministry came in many ways from these classes. But there are significant problems with this approach to ministry preparation. I will limit myself to three here.
First, though none of my professors or colleagues would own this or desire this and fought in many ways to overcome it, it encourages a view of ministry that is primarily about getting information right, not getting lives right.
Second, and related to this, it fosters a view of the minister as the “answer man.” I was guilty of the sins of young ministers equipped with a seminary education who think that what the church is dying for is all the information I had gathered in all the research papers I had written. The big problem here is that the congregation is seen primarily as the place where I apply all of my theology, instead of as a primary location where theology is practiced by a community of God’s people.
Third, and perhaps biggest, is that we received all of this valuable information in the clean room of a seminary classroom. Many seminary grads are shocked to encounter real life congregations and are for the first time to be using live ammo in a bewildering set of circumstances. It’s no wonder that ministers and members alike are victims of friendly fire.
So, in our little experiment in ministry training at Rochester College, you can’t be admitted unless you have signed consent to do projects within a ministry setting. Every course, whether a NT or OT course, or a history and theology course, or a ministry course is concerned that the course content immediately engage an actual ministry setting.
We’re still delivering big content. Our students will read Brueggemann, Volf, Luke Timothy Johnson, Moltmann, Bosch, and other significant works. But they are reading these works within the immediacy of their ministry contexts. They are not simply accumulating “theory” that they will one day “apply” (praxis), but their theory and praxis are immediately mutually informing.
This is of course only possible if students don’t have to pull up stakes and spend a three year residency on a seminary campus. Again, I worried about the loss of this concentrated time with other ministers in training, surely one of the biggest plusses of a traditional MDiv. But for the sake of a more productive learning environment we were willing to give it our best try. And that meant online learning.
Most of the work our students do is on-line. They are required to be face-to-face with each other and program faculty one week per semester. The rest is online. As a result, we have youth ministers and campus ministers and preaching ministers and elders and new monastics and church volunteers and social workers, from Michigan and Ohio and California and Texas and Tennessee and Oklahoma and Brazil, putting Volf and Brueggemann and Johnson to immediate use. And I think the learning is thick and meaningful as a result of the rich environments that our students bring with them to the learning. I know our students think so.
I just got through spending an incredible week in Dallas for my second semester in the Master’s of Religious Education Missional Leadership program through Rochester College. While this is not the purpose of my post, I want to take a second to say that I could not be more pleased with the education, relationships, and experiences I am getting through this program. You should check it out here. Back to the point…
So I spent a week in Dallas talking about missional church and missional leadership. One of the main things I have learned so far is the importance of a listening leader. One of the leader’s primary concerns, according to our amazing professor Dr. Mark Love, is to create an environment where the word of God can be spoken and heard. I have those thoughts floating around in the back of my head as I’m driving around today and I hear on the radio a recent study linking the importance of positive speech to migraine patients. You can read about the study here, but basically they noticed patients reported more pain relief when their medicine was associated with positive speech. That thought mixed with a recent lecture from Mark Love has really been weighing heavily on me.
You see, Dr. Love was stressing the importance of speech and listening. He said the way we speak to one another is a big indicator of whether or not the Word of God can flourish. Think about how often Paul speaks of the hope and newness of life found in the death and resurrection of Christ, and then shortly after that launches into warnings about slander, gossip, and unwholesome talk (see Ephesians for an example). Dr. Love is teaching us about this and then he makes a statement that really cut me: “Gossip, slander and other such speak creates a divisive environment that prevents a hearing and speaking environment for the Word of God.”
Wow! No longer will I approach this matter of speech with the mindset of, “Don’t talk bad about people because the bible says not to.” Now it is, “Watch how you talk about people because you may actually be hindering the Word of God from being spoken.” That cuts me. Next time I hear and see speech patterns of slander, gossip, and the like, I will think twice about jumping into that conversation.
One of the best lessons I learned this week was to watch my speech and be intentional about creating an environment where the Word of God can be both spoken and heard. In order to create this environment, we have to start watching our words and speech patterns. If the word package associated with migraine medicine is so important, how much more so the word package associated with speaking the Word of God?